Twitter and Local Government. Is it a mismatch?

Preface

This article is not meant as an erudite and all answering document from an expert. It’s meant to be less puffed than that. The writer was a practitioner in producing high quality local government web sites (responsible for the web site which won Local Government Web Site of the year (2011) at a recent award in London) who has since become re-involved  with commercial web sites.
This shift in direction has enabled him to judge Local Government web sites from a changed perspective and to better see some of the elements Local Government can improve upon.
The aim of this article, therefore, is to be more commonplace and worthy. More hands on. And is meant to show how using Twitter can alter the way you interact with your clients, by providing hints, tips and links on how to achieve that.

Twitter and Local Government

Why does Local Government generally shy away from Twitter?

Local Government struggles with Twitter for a number of reasons. I suppose the main being fear.

  • Fear caused through a lack of understanding. Many officers and a good percentage of Councillors have no idea what Twitter is all about. And it follows that you don’t touch what you don’t understand.
  • Fear of losing control of “The Message”. Once the ability to (widely) talk about the authority falls outside of those who control such things there is panic.
  • Fear of things being said authorities don’t want the public to hear(as if they are not going to be said anyway) or don’t want raised.
  • Fear of damage to the Council’s reputation caused by the loose lipped/fingered internal Twitterarti.
  • Fear of the immediacy and enormous power provided by Twitter.
  • Fear of the ability to “group” around a topic afforded by Twitter.

Apart from the first of these fears – and that can be handled by some familiarization with the technology – the other negative fears can, and should, be turned into positives.

What’s a Tweet?
This is not a treatise on what Twitter is or where it came from or, for that matter the ethos behind it. That type of information can be found in clear detail here…

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twitter

Neither is it meant to be a “Tweeting for Dummies”. That book must have already been written.

It’s about the application of social media concepts to the medium of local government.

If it’s an audience you’re after…
Twitter describes itself as an information network. It’s built from millions of conversations carried out in 140 character sized chunks.

Whatever your opinion of Twitter, be it embracing or dismissive, you cannot ignore the huge (and that’s an understatement) potential for your 140 character tweets to have an impact on others, or theirs on you.
If you ran a business back in the early part of the 20th century  you couldn’t ignore the telephone or in the latter part of the century the internet. Similarly you can’t ignore Twitter. And for much the same reason:-

  • business is being conducted on Twitter;
  • the public have a growing expectation i.e. they are expecting you to use current technology because they themselves do;
  • using Twitter can save time and money.

Why you shouldn’t ignore Twitter?

Just look at these stats;-

  • 300million accounts (mid 2011) worldwide with about 5million of these (approx) being in the UK.
  • 52% of users are female 48% male.
  • Over 50% are between 25 and 54.
  • About 1 billion Tweets a week
  • Increasing use by business

People are talking about you.
This is worthy of repetition… it’s an “information network. It’s built from millions of conversations”.

So Twitter is  about conversations. Some of those will be about you or your services. Shouldn’t you be a part of those conversations or at least be listening to what people are saying about you?

It’s not one sided. You can pitch in to correct witless and uninformed comment and add value to the whole by providing solid, helpful information.
You can manage your reputation.

I have long held that  “it isn’t from those who pay you compliments you learn anything. It’s from those who complain about your service”.
The complainers are the users of your service and they are taking the time to tell you what you don’t have right, at least for them. If you can answer those complaints you are likely to turn those same complainers into your biggest advocates.

Previously people might have sent you a letter, 1 to 1 sort of thing. This would have happened, in private, without any damage to your reputation. Not now. Little man has a VERY BIG voice.

Spotting what is being said about you on Twitter couldn’t be easier, though I’ll give you putting things right may not be quite so easy – but you can join in.Tell people you’ve heard what they’re saying and are working on it.  Isn’t this what Customer Service is all about; listening, changing and keeping people informed?

Twitter allows micro, detailed management of your customers view of what you do. All you have to do is listen and respond.

So how is this magic performed?

The Hash Tag #

First, learn how to use the hash tag ‘#’ (alt3 for you Mac users).

You can use hash-tags to follow specific groups, to message specific groups and much more.

There’s a really useful “how to” on Hash-tags here… http://tinyurl.com/6gnx64 in fact http://www.twitip.com/ is a great place to answer those general Twitter questions.

Searching for information.

  • Use hash tag to search for relevant tags.
  • Use advance search at http://twitter.com/#!/search-advanced . It’s a definable search so you can exactly specify, and therefore identify, just what it is you’re looking for. Try looking for your own council. See if there are people talking about you now.
  • Save your searches. If your’e using ‘Tweetdeck’ these searches are saved, displayed and updated for you.
  • Use ‘lists’ to group your interests. i.e. Council name, social care, council tax etc.
  • Search using your saved searches everyday. New stuff is being tweeted all the time. ( you can use Tweetgrid.com to do some of this)

Using these techniques you can gather intelligence, see what other councils, thought leaders etc are up to, watch future trends in your industry but most of all you can …
Listen to and identify your customer needs and complaints.

Developing relationships.

People wont read your tweets and re-tweet your messages simply because the message exists or indeed because they are from the Council. The tweets have to be interesting, amusing even but most important they have to be useful.

On your Tweet you can:-

  • break news;
  • share experience;
  • become the group people go to for advice;
  • provide hints and tips;
  • give information on road closures, school closures and the like;
  • tell people what’s happening across your area in libraries, schools etc;
  • guide users to your web site for current  information say on committee meetings etc;
  • get guest tweeters to tweet e.g the Chief Exec or the leader;
  • ask for questions to ask of the guest speakers;
  • tweet discussion on a local topic of interest e.g. closing a school;
  • Develop the relationships by Championing your customers. Reply to them or  retweet their tweets. Show them you are interested in what they say.

What sort of tone should you adopt on your twitter feed and what about the content? What should you say?

  • The tone of voice should be chatty and informal – think of a local radio presenter.
  • 70% of the tweets should be informal with only 30% dealing with more formal, pushy content.
  • Use the tweets to highlight and link to topic points from your web site e.g. videos content etc.
  • Use keywords from a list which you decide on before you started publishing social media. Something like. “your-council-name”, “local government”, “social care”, “libraries” etc. This is particularly powerful if these are also hash-tags.
  • Make using your tweet a rich experience. Full of interest and information.

Managing and monitoring.

Twitter isn’t like a normal web site where you can monitor use with the likes of Google Analytics. There are however some tools you can use to mange your social media – not just Twitter..

  • Tweetdeck. An all purpose tool, now owned by Twitter, which allows you to monitor multiple Twitter accounts as well as Facebook, LinkedIn etc.
    If you save a search in Tweetdeck, say for  ‘Local Government’, it displays real time information on that search.
  • Hootsuite. Similar in some ways to Tweetdeck but seems to have better reporting facility.
  • Sproutsocial ( monthly cost with this )

Depending just how far you wish to delve into Social Media here’s a few more tools you may find of use.

  • Tweetpivot.com. Discover people who tweet on a range of topics and displays them graphically.
  • Twellow.com allows you to discover twitter id’s for people Boris Johnson for example @MayorOfLondon
  • Tweriod shows when followers are most active so you can write to them when they are there to read your tweet.
  • Twtqpon.com allows the creation of coupons for twitter users. With this you can offer discount coupons for some of your services for people using Twitter. Say a discount at the local baths for twitter users.

Where should the responsibility for this medium sit?

The ideal place is in the comms/PR department with a strong sideways link into Customer Services.

Comms is an ideal first filter for incoming information from Twitter. It’s where messages about the authority originate and is therefore perfect for constructing Tweets and controlling the medium in general.

The strong sideways link into Customer Services is to handle the specific complaints and solution providing.

This is not a medium for web techies. It’s about human communication and customer service. It should not be a web function unless of course web and comms are as one in your organisation.

Nearly Lastly…

Being local government organisations you are going to want a policy for all of this. You could look here for quick policy generation – at least the skeleton of one. www.Socialmedia.policytool.net . It’s not perfect but it can give you a base from which to start.

Really lastly…

Don’t expect instant results  and don’t give up.
Social media is hard work if done properly and it requires a lot of (constant) effort and ingenuity.
Stick at it. It really is worth the sweat and remember it forms an increasing part of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) algorithms – more on that not so black art in a piece to come later.

To sum up.

  • We have explored why Local Government seems reticent about joining in.
  • We have discussed the large audience yet macro possibilities of using Twitter.
  • We have seen Twitter is another communications device.
  • We have explored the use of Hash-tags showing their relevance and power.
  • We have seen how using advanced search enable authorities to glean information.
  • We have said that listening is an important part of the Twitter process.
  • We have talked about developing the community and how that can be done by interacting with your clients and complainers.
  • We have talked bout the tone of your tweets and how to manage and monitor your use of Twitter.
  • We have discussed where responsibility for Twitter should sit.
  • We have talked about the need for a policy for your Twitter actions.
  • And we have talked about managing your expectations.

Useful links.

Some of these have been mentioned in the text above.

Crowd-sourced Twitter guide for local government.   Interesting views and observations.
http://t.co/jaFxh54

Don’t’ know what to Tweet, Facebook or Blog. Go take a look here and download the free e-book. Though ideally aimed at  commerce there is a lot that can be learned by the local government social media manager from this treatise.

http://oneforty.com/i/ebook/community_manager_ideas

Policy tool mentioned above.
www.Socialmedia.policytool.net

Risk assessment tool for social media from Carl Haggerty In Devon. It’s a draft but well worth a look.
http://carlhaggerty.wordpress.com/2011/07/29/social-media-risk-assessment-draft

The “how to” on hash tags.

http://tinyurl.com/6gnx64

Twitter Advance search. This is really good.

http://twitter.com/#!/search-advanced

Twitter – the basics and much more.

http://www.twitip.com/

UK Public Sector Web sites – the blog.

http://uklgweb.wordpress.com/

About the author.

Peter Barton was the Head of Service for “Web and Information Governance” at Lincolnshire County Council until December 2010.

Peter introduced many innovative elements into Local Government Web sites many of which have since become commonplace. Advertising for instance.

Peter’s background, prior to Local Government web site production  was in commerce where he started and ran a successful design business for many years. Peter has been involved in web site production since 1992 building the first sites in hand written code.

Peter’s business is a commercial venture  in on-line retail. Quite a departure form local government but a departure which has involved learning about the otherwise hidden intricacies of the web again. This time with a commercial eye. What he now has is a commercially augmented experience of local government web production.  And that’s refreshing and useful.

Peter also provides consultancy to Local Government on all things web.

Contact details:

T:  +44 (0) 1522-878135

M: +44 (0) 7712-578596

E: peterdbarton@gmail.com

Skype: V70PDB

Twitter: #lgwebman – Tweets about local government web stuff


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3 thoughts on “Twitter and Local Government. Is it a mismatch?

  1. Pingback: Search Engine Optimisation for Local Government Web sites. « U.K. Public Sector web sites

  2. This is a good article Peter – you’ve hit the nail on the head about people being scared. I see it all the time when I teach. It’s the first thing people want to do – ban, block, hide it, rather than understand it. I see the same thing with schools.

  3. Pingback: Five interesting pieces of digital democracy news for people working in Local Government | Delib Blog

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